Monday, July 7, 2014

The Furies defy Apollo

Though often described as crones, gorgons or even harpies, I have chosen instead to have the Furies (Greek, erinyes) represented here by a scene from a 4th century Greek vase now in a museum in Karlsruhe, Germany. In my own imagination, they are much older and wingless. The chapter with the title above follows--

Orestes and his companions awoke to a noisy commotion in the shrine. They saw Kalkhas and his assistant confronting three or four creatures that looked like old women dressed in many layers of rags and covered with snakes; perhaps it was so because when they spoke what everyone heard were hisses that almost drowned out their voices. Their appearance suggested that they should smell of sulphur and hell-fire, yet around them swirled a smell mostly of the earth, of deep and old earth.
“You have no right to be here,” intoned Kalkhas. “This shrine is dedicated to Lord Apollo, son of Zeus Almighty. Orestes whom you seek for your foul purposes has been purified by Bright Apollo himself. You have no power over him!”

What would you know about our powers?
You are but Apollo’s servant.
We are more ancient even than Zeus,
Though we bow before his thunderbolts.

Him that we seek has shed his mother’s
Blood, such pollution Apollo—
Even though he rides with the sun
And spreads great pestilence among
The armies and the cities of men—
Cannot forgive, cleanse or absolve.

One who has shed his mother’s blood
Is damned forever; we would devour
Such a monster …

The Furies, ancient divine beings that tended to the fate of men and the world, were interrupted by the appearance of Apollo himself, radiant in anger and self-importance:

Such crones as you dare to intrude into my shrine?
You fail to reckon on the passing of power to a new era.
Even as Ouranos was supplanted by Chronos
And him by his son Zeus, father of us all.
You dare belittle my power to absolve what you call pollution.
Know then that Zeus has deemed the morality of men in need
Of proper and orderly management and
Will bring an end to the senseless cycles of blood feuds.
Such vengeance as you speak of is either too little
Or too much and depends on inflamed passions.

His audience, however, was far from cowed by his appearance or his claims and retorted:

We hear what you have to say
And long have seen that what you do
Seem to mock your own high goals.
Zeus himself has favored Herakles,
And waged war on Priam’s city.
Why else do you favor Agamemnon?
And now wish to exempt his son
From full and just retribution
For slaying his own mother, pah!
How just and proper is that!

Apollo in turn protested:

Agamemnon was far from being my favorite among
The Greeks. He prolonged the agony of war before
Priam’s gate by refusing the ransom offered by Chryses
My priest, who pleased me with his manifold devotion,
For his daughter, Chryseis. The fool claimed she was more
Fit to be his queen than Clytemnestra. So he
Boasted and kept Chryseis to warm his bed a year
Despite the pestilence I sent among the Greeks.
Then when his chiefs and men persuaded him that she
Should be given up in ransom, he took Briseis from
Brilliant Achilles. That fool, idiot, Agamemnon.
I do this not for him at all, but to uphold
The law that fathers and kings are sacred to Zeus.


Then why protect his son Orestes?
For the son killed his mother.
Are mothers less than fathers and kings?
Do they not deserve to be avenged?


Because she had shed blood first, that of Agamemnon.
His sin is less; he must avenge the father she slew.


That blood-guilt is not the same;
Man and wife are not kin, though wrong
This sin is less than matricide.
Our role is to avenge the shedding
Of family blood, the worst
Of crimes, the most impious.


Do you then belittle the bonds of marriage?
Such as is made sacred by Aphrodite, Hera,
Zeus himself, even by Hestia, his older sister.
Further, to the sacred rituals should be added
The vows of parents and even of clans and nations.
Those are what bind man and wife more than their blood.
Your fine distinction is strained and weak; murder
Is the taking of any life. But to kill a
King who must, Zeus-like, give order to a city,
We deem a crime that demands vengeance, thus
We urged Orestes on to his glorious deed.


You call glorious what we assert
To be heinous murder. A mother
Is closer and dearer than anyone
And ought to be revered above all.


Not so, for a child is born of the seed of a man,
He places that seed in a woman only temporarily
Until it is ready for the world and its fate.
The mother gives nothing but a space for the seed
Which she gives up when time is ripe and birth fitting.


Your words are childish and ignorant—


Athena, goddess of wisdom was not born of a mother.


The exception that proves the rule.
But we will stay and bandy words
No more with you. You cannot cleanse
Orestes of the pollution of the
Blood of his mother. Surrender
Him to us; we will suck out his
Stained blood, polluted as it is.

Apollo shone brilliantly as ever, full of Olympian majesty. But the Furies walked through his barriers as if they did not exist. In a towering rage, he summoned his chariot drawn by the fire-horses that drew it at his behest. He would have ascended to Olympus and called on Father Zeus to smite the Furies with his thunderbolts. But Hermes appeared briefly and whispered to him and then to Kalkhas before disappearing.
Greatly humiliated and offended, Apollo cast a spell to put the Furies to sleep—he could not fight them but apparently he, like Hermes, could delay them. Then he whispered briefly with Kalkhas and vanished. The seer approached Orestes and his party and told them:
“Lord Apollo has cast a spell to put the Furies to sleep. It will hold them for a few days. Meanwhile, you need to go to Athens and supplicate the goddess Athena for her protection. She is not there now but Lord Hermes has gone to fetch her from her errands. It is to Athena that you must go, and quickly.”
Without another word, Orestes led his party out and got on the way to Attica and Athens. “So much for the promises of a god,” he muttered.
“His dreams were strong and the headaches real enough,” responded Pylades.
“You all do not have to come with me on this quest,” announced Orestes after they had ridden for a while. “If Athena can save me, well and good. If even she cannot, the Furies will kill me whether or not anyone else is there.”
          “But Orestes,” contended Pylades amiably. “We want to keep you company; besides, I’ve never seen Athens.”

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